James Caan: The Ultimate Caan Game

James Caan was a huge star in the '70s and then virtually disappeared until Misery and Honeymoon in Vegas resurrected him. Here he talks and talks about Coppola, gambling, Italian friends, Streisand, his new movies, Barry Diller and plenty more.

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Tripwired actor James Caan is stalking around his Hollywood manse spewing awesome energy. He's effortlessly throwing off the same explosive intensity--real intensity, not just actor tumult--that's made directors like Sam Peckinpah, Michael Mann and Francis Coppola want him in their movies. It is this last director, father of The Godfather, the film that put Caan at the top of marquees in the '70s, about whom Caan is just now telling a story that has him wearing out the carpet.

In 1987, Coppola was directing Caan in Gardens of Stone. The shoot was not going well. Then things turned catastrophic: Coppola's son was killed in a boating mishap. Stomping over to where I'm sitting, gripping my shoulder, hard, Caan whispers, "You have to understand what I went through with Francis, man. The history. He being the family-oriented Mediterranean he is, I can't conceive of anything more horrible than losing a child. He loves his whole family that way. Of anyone else around him on that set, I had the oldest relationship with him, so I knew what was coming. I told him straight: 'I don't care if you want to hit me with a bat.' Sure I took a beating from him. But it came from love.

These fucking guys around Francis who suck his--you know, who drain him. They were all going, 'Jimmy, what should we do?' They're talking about shutting down the movie, a $12 million loss, worrying about his drive, his mental capacity. I say, 'How stupid you gotta be? His son's dead and he's writing letters to him every day. You try going home like he does and staying alone all night looking at the fucking ceiling. He'll work 24-hour days so he doesn't have to think about it.' They're still going on about his mental drive, so I go, 'What happens when his physical drive can't match his fucking mental drive?' I say, 'You gotta outsmart him. Tell him, "Fuck, we blew the helicopter, we gotta wrap the fucking camera." Bang it. Do something. Make the man rest.'"

At this point there's a catch the size of a football in Caan's voice. "Sure as God made little apples, man, we're doing this barracks scene, and there's no air, and I hear boom! Francis. Out. Heart attack, whatever. Next thing I know, I'm knockin' people, and I jump in the ambulance.

I remember clear as a bell being in the ambulance with him and going into the hospital. Now he's really frightened, you know? He goes, 'Jimmy, you know, here's this gun...' and he's laying there and he's scared. I said, 'Francis, you got two beautiful kids. What about them? Fuck this film.' He just looked at me. And I said something that he later told me he remembers to this day--which is a big deal because I always felt beneath him, he's so bright. I said, 'You're watching, but you ain't seeing nothing, because it's hard to see through tears.'"

James Caan, who stars as a football coach opposite Craig Sheffer in the new film The Program, and co-stars with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan in the new Flesh & Bone (he plays Quaid's father), may not look like the same curly-haired star whose bad-boy smile and macho stance made knees buckle 20 years ago (he tells me laughingly how makeup men rigged up a string-and-paste contraption to pull back his features so he'd look forty-something for still portraits), but for sheer manic energy, few 25-year-olds could challenge him. Shortly after the crescendo of his Coppola tale, Caan's publicist and a production assistant proffer libations to help take the swelter out of the afternoon. Caan stares suspiciously into an amber-hued tumblerful of ice with a tropical-looking swizzle stick.

"What did you make me, darling?" he asks his assistant, mock seductively.

"Just try it," the publicist says.

"I know what you're thinking," says Caan, jumping at the chance to play this game. "You saw those new publicity pictures of me and went, Whoa, the minute Steve goes, we're hitting the sack, right?"

"It's all over my face, isn't it?" the publicist says, grinning. "Just like last night."

Caan looks stymied. Trying to keep the ball in spin.

"Like that other writer," the publicist prompts him, "once he left last night..."

Caan says, laughing with merry malice, "What? You got him?" He's slapping his knee, cracking up delightedly.

"No," she purrs, "I got you."

Caan screws shut an eye like a street corner Romeo. "Forgot," he says, "I was too drunk." Fiddling with the swizzle stick, he says, "These things always jab me in the eye. Why's that?"

"You're supposed to take them out," his production assistant offers, as she and the publicist sidle for the door.

"Need some air in here?" the publicist wonders.

"Only when you guys come in," Caan shoots back. Dismissed.

Well along into middle age, Caan still flusters women. Which he knows. He casually mentions how, back in the days when he used to visit the Playboy Mansion, he once "balled an astounding number of Playboy models, bam, bam, bam, in a row." Then, wincing, covering his eyes, he pleads, "Oh, don't mention that, okay? Sorry, Hef. I'll have Hef and my mother on me."

Women find Caan a powerful persuader. And not always, apparently, the joshing kind. Ex-wife Sheila Ryan launched a $2.5 million battery suit against him in 1980, accusing him of beating her after she told him she was considering remarrying; they had been divorced seven years earlier. Her attorney described Ryan at the time as looking like she'd "been in a bad car-train accident." The suit was dropped three days later. What's with this stuff? Caan fobs it off. He's a different guy now, he says. And, in fact, everyone I've spoken to who knows him tells me how devoted he has always been to his teenage son, Scott Andrew, a hip-hop rapper who just landed a record deal. But at least some corners of the Caan psyche remain unchastened.

Once, almost out of nowhere, he asks: "Do you know how many feminists it takes to screw in a light bulb?" Nah, I don't. He starts cracking up even before delivering the punch line, "One to screw in the light bulb and the other to suck my dick." This kills him.

Caan's frontal lobes seem to go happily on hiatus virtually at will. He loves, for instance, to prick the inflated egos of some of his directors and co-stars, and to democratically dis his box-office highs (Misery, Freebie and the Bean, Funny Lady), lows (Kiss Me Goodbye, The Dark Backward), disappointments (Rollerball, Chapter Two, For the Boys) and critical successes (Thief, The Gambler). He doesn't mince words about his two new movies either, the one from director Steve (The Fabulous Baker Boys) Kloves, Flesh & Bone, or the sports movie The Program from Disney. Actually, he seems in no hurry to talk about either of these efforts, and since he is so downright jovial and thoroughly outrageous on other topics, neither am I.

"Did I tell you about the guy who came here as an interviewer but I thought it might be some wise guy stuff, like, he might be wearing a wire?" he asks, fingering the Italian horn charm and Star of David that dangle from gold chains around his neck. No, actually, he hasn't. "I threw him in the fucking pool," he answers, chortling merrily. Caan notices that I've seen how he occasionally hobbles and jigsaws around the room like Grandpa Amos on "The Real McCoys." "Somebody said once that I've got so many sports injuries and stitches that I wasn't born, I was embroidered. For years, I thought my name was 'Bastard.' Every time I'd come home, every time I had an accident, my mother would say, 'Ya bastard! Ya bastard!'"

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